Never Too Late!

At our house we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and we also give a nod toward the Solstice.  This year we planned to observe the Solstice with a bonfire, and burn twenty years’ accumulation of tax receipts in our firepit, but it never stopped raining long enough to light a match.

Eli and I told Christmas and Hanukkah stories at the Renton History Museum.  One cannot properly tell stories without feeling the spirit within, so we were primed for both holidays.

Afterwards we went to Farmer Brown’s Tree Farm to cut our own Christmas tree.

Then we went home to light the menorah.

 We had company this year, cousins of my father, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.  June Aptekar Allen Smith and her husband Haskell traveled to Seattle from Texas to celebrate their first Hanukkah ever.

They played dreidel and sang the blessings for the first time, just as June’s ancestors had done for nearly two thousand years.

At 88 and 89, they are still fascinated by the world around them, by history, travel, current events, and the stories of strangers they meet in their every day life.  We reconnected with June and her daughter Leslie ten years ago, at an Aptekar family reunion in Tucson.  They introduced us to June’s niece Nancy and her husband Ian, who happened to live right here in Seattle, and who we now love like, well… family.

We compared notes and stories about our Aptekar roots, taking into account June and Haskell’s meticulous research, papers and letters from my mother’s attic, my Grandma Rose’s recently rediscovered autobiography among them.  Cousin Bryan drove up from Portland to represent the descendants of Dave Aptekar, yet another branch of the family tree.  We pieced together all our snatches and snippets and scraps of information into a more comprehensive family history, from before the pogrom of Odessa in 1905 to my great grandparents’ subsequent immigration through Ellis Island, and on to Detroit.

In 1905, the Aptekar family huddled in the cold and the dark, listening to the screams of horses and the crash of breaking glass, as Cossacks charged down the street, burning the businesses and homes of Odessa Jews, killing 800 Jewish men, women and children, and causing 2, 500 casualties.  Trapped inside without food or fuel for the fire, the Aptekar family huddled in their winter coats, and broke through ice in the water pail to drink.  With tears streaming down his cheeks, my great grandfather Jacob Aptekar chipped tiny pieces of sugar from the sugar cone to feed to his hungry children, promising them he would find food for them soon, while making a silent promise to himself to move his family far from that hateful place forever.  Jacob’s hair turned white overnight, and my Grandma Rose’s little sister Clara died in her arms.

Victims of 1905 pogrom in Odessa

Over the next two generations, time, geography, estrangement, and self-imposed exile tugged at the threads of the Aptekar family tapestry.  But more than a hundred years later, the descendants of Jacob’s children, Reuben, Rose, and David, gathered around one table for latkes, applesauce, and Hanukkah sushi.

Broken threads can be repaired and rewoven…

…and it is never too late for a happy ending.

All words c2012 Naomi Baltuck.


  1. I need a family like yours Ms. Naomi….want to adopt a big grown militant Black brotha from another mother for next Christmas?

  2. I read this while listening to the soundtrack to Everything is Illuminated… not intentionally… but quite appropriate! Best wishes to ALL of the Baltucks for a wonderful 2013… 😉

  3. Ah, you don’t disappoint…the grand story, epic, historic, et al. and in pictures… the twinkly lights and candles….and the FOOD. Hanukkah sushi! Now, that’s BRILLIANT!

    1. Thanks so much, Scilla–you are always so generous with your comments. My vegetarian kids have figured out a way to make delicious vegetarian sushi–with just enough oil in them to qualify as a Hanukkah dish! Happy New Year to the whole family.

  4. What a heartbreaking – and ultimately heartwarming – story. Your grandparents and great-grandparents would be so proud and happy to see their descendants sharing that Hanukkah meal.
    Best wishes to all your family and have a wonderful New Year!

  5. my goodness, how very interesting!! We too celebrate both Hanukah (and why are there so many spelling of that word anyway?) and Christmas in my house. I come from a Jewish family but became a Christian at 16. But I still have my heritage that I want to pass down to my daughter so….but I also wanted to say reading parts of your history here reminds me of my own. My roots are in Romania (and somewhere upstairs I have the name of the town my grandparents came from) and Kishinev which I believe is now in Moldova? for years I called myself Russian/Romanian and then the USSR broke up so then I started calling myself Ukrainian because I thought that’s where Kishinev is but looking at the map a year or so ago, it sure looks like it’s part of Moldova. anyway, my grandparents from Kishinev also came to this country to escape the pogroms tho I am not sure what year. I recently searched the Ellis Island records online for both families with no luck. I wonder if my uncle would know….oh anyway, sorry to go on and on! I found this post so interesting!! thanks so much for sharing.

    1. That is so interesting, Toby! Being Jewish is so much more than following a certain religion. My Jewish heritage is really important to me, and it is something I wanted my kids to understand a feel proud of. I urge you to ask your uncle to tell you some stories and share his memories. Ask anyone else who might know about your family. Unfortunately, too often by the time we learn to care about such things, the ones who know the most are already gone.

      My daughter is learning Hebrew and Yiddish, and one day I will take the kids to Odessa to see the shtetl her great grandparents came from. If we don’t make it there, we will still have the story. It puts a face on history, and helps us become deeper participants in the world. I hope you find out more of your story, and then share it with us in a post! Best wishes for the New Year!

      1. Yes, I need to call my uncle. He’s my last remaining uncle too. and you’re right, the ones with the stories have passed on. I do have a tape that another uncle made (other side of the family) that now that I think about it, I should really get that onto a CD as that cassette is bound to wear out. ah, so much to do, so little time! must. make. the. time! wow, your daughter is learning Yiddish? that’s impressive indeed! We come from the same part of the world, or close, we could be related 😉 Funny story: I met someone on another blog and we eventually learned that our respective ancestors all came from Kishinev!! we exchanged some family names but neither of us recognized any of them. but there is a good chance our families did know each other! Gives me chills you know? thanks for the inspiration, I will call my uncle soon!

      2. Yiddish is a really interesting language–she’s been reading aloud to me from a book called “Born to Kvetch.” She is also a first year Hebrew student. I think in some way she is reclaiming that part of her heritage that she lost when my father died, and we lost touch with his side of the family.

        I love your story about meeting someone from your family’s place of origin. If they lived in the same shtetl, then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had known each other. That is very cool!

        Once I was sitting in the back seat of a car, on my way to go hiking with a friend, and the friend of a friend. It turns out she had family that came over from Odessa in the Ukraine, too, only she was the granddaughter of a Cossack. I thought it was really interesting that our two families had come to a place in time and geographically where we could be friends. I wish it were that way everywhere!
        I hope you do get in touch with your uncle soon!

  6. What fun times you and your family have been having. I went to my first Hannukah party this year. Loved the potato latkes and apple sauce. I couldn’t stop eating them. 😀 Great pics, Naomi.

      1. When we taught June and Haskell how to play, there were no children present, and he is diabetic, so I brought a couple of rolls of quarters, and that raised the stakes and made the game very interesting, even for adults.

  7. Very nice to read of the happy ending for the Aptekar family, and of connecting the branches and the threads of the family after a hundred years. Your pictures radiate warmth, and your post gives us a taste of the spirit of holiness in your home, during this very special season.

  8. I loved reading your post and the family history! To have first hand knowledge of Crystal Night is terrible, but how wonderful they survived to tell about it, especially when so many didn’t. My grandfather was in Germany (attending college) during the hyper-inflation and his first hand stories made it much more real than the school books.


    1. Hi Nancy,
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Crystal Night was also a pogrom, similar to this one, except that this one happened in Odessa, Ukraine in 1905, and that one happened in Germany in 1938. Oh, my gosh, is your grandfather still around to ask about it? It would be so interesting to be able to about it from the perspective of someone who was there at the time!

  9. This is a beautiful post, Naomi. I can’t imagine the hardships the former generations endured. How nice that once again the tapestry threads are being woven.

  10. We will never fully appreciate what our ancestors have been through, my ancestory on maternal side is Romanian but I don’t know much and records are sparse. you are very fortunate to have the branches of your tree to pick the fruit from and continue the growth of history and memories. A beautiful story thank you Naomi for sharing it with your blogging family 🙂

  11. See how those tax receipts refuse to die! I hope the sun has come out since, and you’ve managed to burn them.

    You have such an interesting extended family. Such lovely happy photos. Thank you for sharing them 🙂

    1. Hah! I have them cornered in my office, like a snowdrift, only made of paper, knee high, and I can’t get close enough to touch them. Now I have to spend the month of January immortalizing the latest batch of business receipts, due at the end of the month.

      Thank you for stopping by, Sarah, and for your always-kind-and-generous comments.

  12. A beautiful and heartwarming post Naomi! It really is never too late to pick up the links! Wishing you and your extended family much happiness in the coming year 🙂

  13. Tears and blessings! May we evolve beyond hatred and cruelty and realize that what we do to others we do to ourselves, that we are all One.

    1. Hi Jo,
      A dreidel is a little spinning top that the Jews have been playing with for a thousand years. When the Romans forbad them to teach their religion, they did anyway. If a Roman soldier walked by, they’d take out the dreidel and pretend to be playing a game until he left, and then they’d continue their teaching. The 4 letters on the dreidel, one on each side, mean, ” A great miracle happened there,” and it refers to the miracle of Hanukkah…but that’s another story.

      Thank you so much for visiting, and taking the time to comment.

  14. What a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays, and how great that you have the history of your families – that much more to celebrate. The courage, the sadness, the happiness, the survival – amazing!

    1. I am sure that every family has its challenges, and some amazing stories. Every person on this earth has bloodlines that stretch back to the beginning of time. Wouldn’t it be amazing to know them all!

  15. Wow! That is quite a family legacy. What an awful time that had to have been as the Cossaks went on their pogram. Your dad’s long lost cousins seem amazing. And Hannukah sushi sounds divine. What a fun reunion you had to learn all this neat history of your family.

    1. Hi Jamie,
      I’d heard of the Story Corps, and I know they were targeting special groups, like WWII vets, but I never knew they had anything like this for Jewish Americans. I’m sure I will get down there to visit Bea sometime, and I will check it out.

      I’d like to go back to the Ukraine and see what I can learn about Odessa. My grandfather was from Kiev, and all his relatives were killed at Babi Yar in WWII, but I think it would be interesting to look around Odessa, where my Grandma grew up. We think we might know the street she lived on, and if we find where the Jewish Quarter intersects that street, we might safely say we were walking upon the streets that she had in your youth.

  16. Wow! What a story of your past you have. I have started on a journey myself of digging up bones finding answers you blog post gives me HOPE

    I am glad you enjoyed your holidays and I want to wish you a Very Happy New Year I am glad you are on my list of those I follow.


    1. Hi Eunice,
      I’d love to hear more about your journey back into family history! I am glad we connected too, and I do enjoy following your blog as well. I hope you had a good New Year’s Day!

      1. I did I rested back all day and will again today and write


        Thanks for stopping by

  17. Absolutely beautiful. You brought tears to my eyes and hopefulness to my heart. Lovely Naomi just lovely. 🙂 I am so happy you all reconnected.

  18. You live your life for the happy ending, Naomi. I love your philosophy and that you place your family first, weaving them many wonderful memories to cherish and move forward.

    Happy New Year!

  19. Never too late for a happy ending, never too late for a first Hanukkah for a couple in their late 80s. Much to learn and appreciate in this post, Naomi. 🙂

  20. I enjoyed your post and photos.

    Thank you for visiting my blog today. I appreciate the time you took to stop by. May your day be filled with joy and peace.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s